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Lee and Patel face off for lone Democratic debate in PA-12 ahead of primary election

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (l) and Democratic challenger Bhavini Patel (Credit: Pennsylvania Capital-Star)

Kim Lyons, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
April 5, 2024

PITTSBURGH – During a 30-minute debate on Thursday, Edgewood Councilmember Bhavini Patel, who is running against U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (D-12th District) in the Democratic primary, called on Lee to denounce the “Uncommitted” movement, a write-in protest against President Joe Biden. 

It was a new volley in the contentious campaign between the two candidates, who have traded barbs over domestic and international issues, including the Israel-Hamas war and support of Biden. 

Patel called the grassroots Uncommitted initiative, which is protesting Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, a “fringe” organization that “undermines our democracy and hurts President Biden.” The group is urging Democrats to write “uncommitted” on primary ballots, but said their opposition does not extend to the general election. 

Lee pushed back, noting that Biden has spoken out on behalf of people who are “uncommitted” because he wants to encourage people to vote in the primary.

“We can say that we stand with the president, but we cannot do that if we are not actually taking care to bring out the voters the president needs,” Lee said. “There is a new coalition that we have in our country. It is Black people and progressives and young people, Muslims and Palestinians and Jewish people. We need each and every one of them. So to just throw any part of our coalition out is to say that we don’t want President Biden to win.”

Patel, whose family immigrated to the U.S. and runs a food truck business, has criticized Lee for her stance on the Israel-Hamas war, and laid out her own position on Thursday. Patel said the Biden administration should continue to provide additional humanitarian aid to Gaza. 

“I think that any sort of decision that we make as it relates to the Middle East, and our part to play in that, we need to make sure that we are putting positions in place to provide for long lasting peace and anything that allows us to move towards a two-state solution,” she said. 

Moderator Lisa Sylvester of WPXI-TV followed up to ask if “humanitarian aid” also meant more military aid for Israel. “I think military aid is directly tied to our own national security,” Patel replied. “We can’t have zero sum solutions to complicated issues, and the minute that we start to ignore the nuances, again, I think it stokes antisemitism and hatred.”

Lee offered her own criticism of Patel, for receiving support from prominent Republicans. 

“She is now backed by Jeffrey Yass, who is the richest man in Pennsylvania who has spent all of his money eroding public education. He has eroded abortion rights, and right now is on the shortlist to be treasurer secretary for Donald Trump,” Lee said. “Her entire campaign is backed by Republicans yet she says that I’m not a good enough Democrat. It feels like she’s implying that there’s enough room for Joe Manchin, but not a Black woman fighting for her own party.”

Patel has the support of Moderate PAC, which is funded by Yass, according to Politico, and which the Inquirer reported has bought $586,000 in ads supporting Patel.

Patel said Thursday she denounced extremism “on both sides of our party. I denounced Donald Trump, I denounced Jeffrey Yass,” and again she pushed Lee to “denounce” the Uncommitted movement.

Sylvester asked Lee to respond to a March letter from religious leaders in Pittsburgh citing what they considered her “rhetoric and votes in relation to the events of Oct. 7 in Israel… and the rise in antisemitism in America.”

“I think that unfortunately, I’m not able to respond to that because I don’t know what they consider to be antisemitic rhetoric, unfortunately, they were not pushed to provide any examples of that,” Lee replied. She said she has condemned Hamas for “atrocities” it committed in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and that she called for a de-escalation of violence in the region. 

“In this district, the overwhelming majority of people are calling for a ceasefire, because we recognize it is the only way to free the hostages and to commit to a just and lasting peace. There will be no two-state solution if there is nothing left of Gaza standing because the United States did not speak out,” and hold U.S. ally Israel accountable, Lee added.

During a conversation on affordable housing, Patel praised the Whole Home Repair program, a state-level home improvement initiative that offers grants and forgivable loans for eligible homeowners that U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) introduced at the federal level. “I think that that’s a step in the right direction,” Patel said. “And I would be wholeheartedly in support of that.”

Lee called the affordable housing crisis “the most shameful of all the other crises that we’re facing in the United States, and Western Pennsylvania is not immune to that.” She noted that she had championed the Whole Home Repair program when she was a state legislator and continued to champion at the federal level “because we’ve seen how successful that program is.” 

Sylvester asked the candidates what they would do to support middle class families amid rising costs. 

“We have to raise the wage, support the Pro Act and make sure that we are expanding union protections,” Lee said, pointing to her first-term co-sponsorship of the OLIGARCH Act, which would tax higher incomes at a higher rate. “People should not work a job and not be able to afford housing or food, or transportation.”

Patel said she was “optimistic that prices have gone down,” and said her family’s food truck was moving back toward its pre-COVID 19 business.  “It’s absolutely critical that we help working class communities,” she said, noting she had endorsements from several local labor unions.” 

On gun violence, Lee said she helped sponsor bills to ban assault weapons and close loopholes in gun laws, but that it was also important to provide wraparound services “to help make sure that we are addressing gun violence at its root cause, which is addressing poverty, creating opportunities for people and communities like mine,” she said.

Patel said it was important to push for universal background checks and safe storage laws. She said Lee had called to defund the police, adding “I think that we need to make sure that we are investing in law enforcement and creating relationships between our community and public safety officials so that we can prevent gun violence and put communities onto a path of upward mobility.”

Lee refuted Patel’s claim that she had called for defunding the police. “I think this is going to be a concerning trend that we’re going to see my opponent bring falsehoods out of thin air and spread misinformation,” she said. “What I consistently said about policing is that we know that for true community safety, policing is not the beginning or the end of that. If we want our community to be safe, then we need to invest in those communities of color.” 

She added that none of her work as a legislator has defunded any police officers.

The debate will be the last time the candidates face each other before the April 23 primary, after a fiery candidates’ forum in January. 

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.